Forward into the Past

John Haber
in New York City

1900: Art at the Crossroads

Think the art scene is crazy? Make that crazy, confusing, cliquish, and very possibly at the end of an era? Welcome to the year 1900.

In a sprawling, overblown, infuriating exhibition, the Guggenheim tries to recreate that year. "1900: Art at the Crossroads" wants to change people's minds about Modernism—or at least to expand them. Sadly, the show may leave one as tired, confused, and angry as before. Worse, it may well have a dreadfully narrow mind of its own. Its view of the year 1900, as the culmination of nineteenth-century art, makes one long for the present. Cézanne's Man with the Crossed Arms (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, c. 1899)

Modernism's burial ground

It begins in Paris, storybook capital of art and home of its own gigantic Exposition Universelle at the century's end. No wonder Anita Brookner cannot imagine Romanticism's essence apart from France after Bonaparte. The Guggenheim rounds up the usual suspects, from Post-Impressionists, such as Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne, to an avant-garde still not finding its way out of the garret. And surprise: they serve as just part of the crowd, amid 250 paintings and sculpture from all over Europe and America.

The cold light of Danish landscape shivers alongside Claude Monet and his late fireworks of day. Future stars of modern art share the ramp's awkward alcoves with half-forgotten academic artists. One rarely associates one or the other with the year 1900, for they most often represent instead art's future and its past.

Robert Rosenblum, the show's chief curator, always enjoys shaking things up. He has already done so, in fact, with a survey text on the nineteenth century filled with academic art. Like this show, his book leaves plenty of room for garish sentiment under cover of careful history. In this fat exhibition, his contrary nature shows off even more. He has a chance to provoke people to his heart's content, and he runs with it.

Critics have jumped all over him in defense of quality—and of quality time. At best, they point out, a patient visitor can eventually find greatness, like hunting soil for half-buried gems. Surely Modernism deserves a decent, or at least more efficient, burial.

I could almost feel the same way—but wait a minute. Surely this show intends to scrutinize the whole idea of quality. Besides, for decades now art has done just that. Modernism already reveled in the brutality of vision. Postmodernism then linked the notion of quality to art as an institution, with periods as its wards. Shifts in taste, after all, can reveal a nation's dreams, a nation in hiding from the world, museum politics, and commercial interests under a vast network of dealers.

Before digging in my heels, then, in defense of quality, I ought to remember something. Rosenblum knows what he wants, and he gets it. Maybe I should ask why. Only then can one see what goes wrong.

Gallery hopping a century ago

Give the guy a break, then, for a moment. Other museums, too, have obsessed over dates. Others have tried to escape modernist biases. The Museum of Modern Art had its own Y2K problem, re-hanging the permanent collection to suggest a decade in transition. Instead of the march of time, turn-of-the century art scattered into more than a dozen small exhibitions, with neutral rubrics of "People, Places, Things." Rosenblum, at least, has recognizable divisions—by genre, such as landscape or the nude.

Then, too, surely no one creates in a vacuum. Artists learn from tradition and struggle to escape it. Can the art world have lost sight of what Pablo Picasso himself knew? One of several candidates for first abstract painter, František Kupka, showed at the 1900 Exposition. He turns out to have known tradition and modernized it well. Compared to neighboring works here, he creates a sharp, delicate, and tangible sunlight among the leaves.

No one understands art in a vacuum either. One has to examine the assumptions both of one's own time and the artist's to piece out meaning. I have to form my own judgments about the present, too, through frustrating, rewarding afternoons of gallery hopping. Just imagine if I could hop through the year 1900. Instead of buried gems, maybe I ought to speak of the Guggenheim's Easter egg hunt. I might learn something from the messages inside.

Any museum, just like any writer, faces a tough task—the task of showing art to others. A critic cannot evoke or encompass a work of art. I can only offer what insights I have, hoping to make art's strangeness newly accessible. A museum, too, cannot really display artists—in all that they have created, in all their world outside the museum. As a show assembles works, it frames artists for a public. An accurate description or revealing exhibition demands a point of view, but it also allows others to see for themselves.

So why not take the risk and jump back in time? How did the century come to be. And what does that say about "art at the crossroads" now, as Modernism remains on trial?

The Modern never did find a way out of its official history. Maybe the Guggenheim can.

Modernism as tradition . . .

Enough excuses. Alarm bells are already going off loud and clear. And I do not mean midnight of the year 1900.

The Guggenheim hopes to step outside Modernism, to place art in its time. Meanwhile, it starts with assumptions critical of Modernism, assumptions born in art and politics of today. It basks in postmodern awareness, in which every choice masks a point of view, especially textbook histories of greatness. At the same time, it tries to escape any special point of view.

The show aspires to the same universality as that Exposition Universelle. At the same time, it hopes to remember the foolishness of such a claim, the limits of the exhibition's planners. Instead of recreating that show over 100 years ago, it peeks into the studios of artists who could never have made the grade yet, not even in their own eyes.

I know cheating when I see it. So ask what the museum never will: exactly what assumptions does the Guggenheim make? Beneath such a sweeping record, who gets to make history? To find out, why not take a little further the implied comparison to art today.

Suppose a friend asks me for a chance to see more than just today's most hyped artists on a walk in Chelsea. Together, we linger over galleries that I normally pass as fast as I can, especially on those days when art turns all to quickly into comic books and chocolate candy. Suppose now that I take all this gallery art and sneak it into a museum. While I am at it, I drag in Sunday painting from Washington Square. Oh, and I have it all hang side-by-side with artists who will not attain fame—or even much of a plan—for years to come. What happens?

For one thing, the system looks far more conservative than it deserves. Galleries refuse to show all that—or at least never manage to sell it all—and they have arguments worth considering, too. In another sense, too, the system starts to appear duly universal—both more open than in reality to new art and more entrenched. In my imagined museum, every gallery merits full attention, and gallery contents move more readily to museum walls than in any conceivable Whitney Biennial. The establishment has ample room for art in opposition, and it even gets to set the terms of the opposition. The Guggenheim's exhibition cheats the past in much the same way.

Modernism as Romanticism . . .

At the Guggenheim, art may stand at crossroads of the future, but all roads run through the past. Perhaps in reality some artists go out on their own, attempting something perplexingly different.

Take not just the selection, but also the terms of display. One first encounters, in the tall alcove off the first ramp, the Exposition Universelle at its most reactionary and, I fear, laughable. Cherubs pile up like a landfill across from William Bougereau's Virgin and Child, and he responds in kind. A horde of greeting-card angels dominates the scene. I had not even known that he lasted up till 1900.

Next comes the meat of the show, five floors and three tower galleries segregated by genre. Just as "People, Places, Thing" meant some suspiciously bland choices at the Modern, division by subject pretty much buries art here. Like the exhibition itself, it sounds neutral but carries an assumption. Out goes a real history of ideological conflict. Out go all those movements, from Symbolism on. Out as well goes art in series, in search of its own standard of definition, from Monet's Waterlilies to Edgar Degas with his dancers and beyond, to such modernist landmarks as Jackson Pollock's numbered canvases. No, in the eyes of this exhibition, every artist thought first of formal academic training.

The exhibition welcomes the new. Does a Degas bather fit happily into traditions of the female nude or not? Degas admired Ingres no end, even in his quick sketches as a medium to themselves, theatrical perspectives, and backstage intimacy. Does he really stay content, however, to improve on Ingres's followers? Rosenblum asks that tradition itself define the artist.

In this exhibition, artists look for expression and new means of realism in what they have learned and what they see. In effect, Rosenblum makes modern artists into Romantics, just as his best book compares Mark Rothko's somber light to Northern Romanticism, the territory of Caspar David Friedrich and Peder Balke. In seeking a moment in history, he chucks out decades of controversy and change. No wonder Bougereau and his exposition occupy a pride of place often, and plausibly, accorded the Salon in histories of Impressionism. Only here they get nothing comparable to the Salon des Refusés.

My analogy to galleries today reinforces the anachronism. Today, the system has power to absorb and neutralize Romanticism beyond the dreams of a Paris salon. Young artists could still find each other. They could find a new art in Cézanne's fantastically stumbling perceptions far from Paris. Today, too, artists work within a tradition, the messy review of Modernism that one might just as well agree to call Postmodernism. A century ago, ideals of an avant-garde were just coming into being.

Modernism as drivel . . .

In the end, the Guggenheim tries to revise settled characters, but it risks wiping out the character of artists, good and bad alike. When chilly landscapes hang beside Monet, differences between nations, age, and even light all disappear. The better artist turns into one more misty-eyed sunset. Next to all those back-lit cherubs, Mary Cassatt's bright colors, flattened perspective, bold intimacy, and naked flesh lose their surprise. They join in a celebration of sweetness and light. Sadly, the public already thinks of Monet and Cassatt that way, museum gift shops pander to the prejudice, and this show will reinforce it.

To help force everyone into tradition, the show picks some shoddy work, too. It mostly bypasses major museum collections. If one expects to find those buried gems, better look hard. Of course, a show devoted to the Guggenheim's commercial Modernism probably has no serious intention of upstaging the museum's own collection. At least this gives a truly great Cézanne, The Man with the Crossed Arms, almost an alcove to itself near the end. It could be looking back in bitter determination at the entire show.

Not surprisingly, many of the most modern artists look pretty awful. Edvard Munch may come off worst, in a show with little room for private agony rather than pious symbolism. Other artists look way too nice for their own good. A dark mass of trees from Piet Mondrian and Picasso's self-portrait seem daring in this crowd. One overlooks how much that concedes to the show's bias, for at this age both artists really did define their art against tradition.

Burying creative artists in drivel has one valuable result. It got me disturbed enough to think, and I hope it will disturb others, too. The show really does have solid lessons for the present, only not ones that Rosenblum may wish to hear.

Right now, art can seem pretty academic. Now, perhaps, one cannot simply go back to Modernism, Postmodernism, and their textbooks. Perhaps, too, one cannot escape them. Either way, escape will not return contemporary art to Romanticism.

Just when the sentimental mist got on my nerves, I hit one of the Guggenheim's terraces. Suddenly I could stretch my eyes across the park, and the colors of the sky hit me like a new day. I wanted to wake up to anything, and a truly modern art would have done fine indeed.

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"1900: Art at the Crossroads" ran at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through September 10, 2000. Ironically, Rosenblum's vision almost comes true in 2007, in the Met's nineteenth-century galleries.


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